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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 4, January/February 2005

The college versus the columnist

by Nancy Knickerbocker

Every other week for the past couple of years, Andrea Phillpotts’ work has appeared on the Opinion page of her community paper, The Richmond Review, circulation 46,000. She writes upbeat columns on issues in schools and the wider community: the debate over school uniforms, the four-day week, multiculturalism in the classroom, and the truth about teens (they’re wonderful people).

"After the birth of my second child, I felt this new creativity and I started writing," said Phillpotts, a secondary English teacher. "My column is very positive, very pro-kids and pro-education." It’s certainly not controversial: "It’s actually quite fluffy."

In a January 2004 column, Phillpotts explored the personal question of whether to enroll her daughter in French immersion, and the political and practical aspects of the growing demand for immersion and the resulting overcrowding in local schools. She also reported on various factors parents discuss when deciding where to enroll their kids: "French immersion programs generally have fewer students with special needs, often have very committed parents, and always have more funding than regular programs."

Within days, the father of a student with special needs had written a letter of complaint, not to the editor but to the superintendent. He concluded with a demand for an apology in the next column.

Richmond Superintendent Bruce Beairsto suggested that because Phillpotts was writing as an independent citizen, not a representative of the district, she alter her byline to ensure greater clarity on that point. She promptly did so. In addition, at the end of her next column, she wrote: "I would like to acknowledge and applaud all the dedicated and hardworking students and parents, of all abilities and backgrounds, in Richmond and other school districts."

With that, Phillpotts felt she had done what the superintendent and the parent had requested. As a strong proponent of integration, she wanted to set the record straight on "who I am as a teacher," she said. "What hurt most was the thought that even one of those students I care so deeply about would feel that I didn’t value them—that really hurt."

That’s why it came as such a shock to receive an official letter stating she was under investigation by the B.C. College of Teachers as a result of her column. Ironically, the letter came on May 3, World Press Freedom Day.

Phillpott’s editor at the paper, Bhreandain Clugston, wrote to the college. "As you are aware, the British Columbia College of Teachers has no jurisdiction over The Richmond Review nor its content. It has nothing to do with Ms. Phillpotts’ teaching performance or abilities. This should be an issue between a reader and a newspaper and I would hope that the College not pursue the matter further."

Ah, but the college did pursue it further. Its preliminary investigations subcommittee determined that the matter was serious enough to warrant further action, and it required her to provide answers to the following questions:

1. Do you now have a better understanding of the role you must play as a professional in your community? Please explain.

2. Do you understand that your out-of-school conduct is not congruent with a public school teacher’s professional image?

3. What reassurances can you provide the College that this conduct will not be repeated?

Phillpotts response? "I honestly could have answered number one in the positive, but not two and three. They said my behavior was inappropriate, unprofessional. I absolutely don’t accept that."

Her initial reactions were self-censorship and self-doubt. She thought about quitting writing the column. "I realized I had started to silence myself," she said. "I was paranoid about the role of a teacher in society. Could the college control all aspects of our lives even outside school?"

As the stress mounted, Phillpotts lost sleep, lost weight, even began to lose her hair. But with moral and legal support from her local and the BCTF, she became determined to fight the college’s attempt to stifle her right to free expression. She’s taking her case to the B.C. Supreme Court, arguing that the college’s actions infringe upon her free speech rights as enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"I’ve always encouraged my students to speak out, and taught them about the rights we have here in Canada under the Charter. If I quit, what’s the message to them?" she asked.

A former student, Aviva Levin, echoed that question in a letter to The Richmond Review: "...to me, this struggle is about essential lessons as much as it is about basic freedoms. In Ms. Phillpotts’ class I was taught to take pride in my ideas and in my writing and never be ashamed to share them."

When she’s feeling discouraged, Phillpotts turns to a thick file of letters of support from students, parents, and colleagues and feels her resolve renewed. "It’s my duty to fight this," she said. "It’s important to do it for all teachers."

Nancy Knickerbocker is the BCTF’s media-relations officer.

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